It was the coldest winter in a decade-and-a-half. Petrol stations were closed, goods were not being delivered, rubbish was piling up in the streets and the dead were not being buried.
This week marks 40 years since some of the most widespread strikes ever seen in the UK – the Winter of Discontent.
January 1979 proved a miserable month for people across the country, including Lancashire, as the weather turned cold and snow and blizzards swept in – while the industrial action deepened.
The then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan had tried the previous year, to set pay claims to under five per cent to control inflation.
The series of strikes, that became dubbed ‘the Winter of Discontent’ – a phrase first uttered in Shakespeare’s Richard III – were ignited by Ford Motors workers.
In September 1978, a pay increase was set by the company within the allotted five per cent designated by the government and was wholeheartedly rejected by the workers. That month an unofficial walk-out was staged – later backed by the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).
After several weeks the TGWU agreed on a 17 per cent pay increase and Ford workers returned to their factories in November. The government attempted to impose sanctions on Ford for breach of the pay policy soon after the deal had been struck. But Callaghan only narrowly won a motion of confidence after the sanctions had been heavily amended in Parliament and accepted they could not be imposed. This effectively made the government powerless to enforce the five per cent limit – leaving the door open for more strikes.
Lorry drivers were next to take action – and the floodgates were opened. By the end of January, water workers, ambulance drivers, sewage workers, binmen and council grave-diggers were on strike. January 22 saw a nationwide ‘Day of Action’ across the public sector, by members of NUPE (the National Union of Public Employees), with more a million-and-a-half taking part, but many strikes carried on throughout the whole of the month.
Combined with the bitterly cold weather conditions, it was a recipe of a winter of misery. Many public services were paralysed. The Post reported motorists facing “treacherous, ungritted roads” and dustbins left unemptied because council workers were not operating normally.A ban on overtime and weekend working meant the gritters were not out to treat Lancashire’s roads – and lorry strikes meant salt was running out.
Pickets were held at oil refineries and petrol stations closed as fuel ran out with the lack of deliveries. Blackpool Airport was closed, as a result of the council workers’ overtime ban. The transport strike meant a mini fish famine hit Fleetwood, as independently-owned Icelandic ships pledged to stop coming until it was over.
A large number of schools across Lancashire closed due not only to union members in schools striking, but also a shortage of oil, meaning they had no heating. At Torrisholme County Primary School, in north Lancashire, 80 parents staged a mass ‘teach-in’ after striking teachers left the classrooms locked.
Public toilets and swimming baths were shut in the one-day strike – in support of a national wage claim for a minimum £60 a week. Pumping station staff were taking part in the action, and as a result raw, untreated sewage had to be pumped into the sea. British Aerospace at Warton was forced to halt test flying – the company could not get enough salt and de-icing fluids and was forced to close down runways.
Hospital ancillary staff joined in the strike later in the month, reducing services to emergency-only. Among those out were the laundry staff who refused to clean the linen at the Royal Preston Hospital. Drivers and storemen – members of NUPE – held a walk-out in the £60 a week pay claim.
Nurses went on strike, railway workers and train drivers all walked out too, as part of the series of strikes. While 500 ambulancemen and women in Lancashire staged a lightning 24 hour strike which dragged on into a second day in Preston and Ormskirk. Water had to be boiled before drinking, after an unofficial strike in the Ribble Division of the North West Water Authority saw 600 manual workers down tools. Meanwhile, a burst main in Mawdesley went unrepaired by the strike action forcing residents to use a standpipe for water supplies.
Tetleys pubs across Lancashire were forced to close after a strike at Tetley-Walkers brewery in Warrington. The Mayor of Wyre, Coun Jack Davis, had to act as his own chauffeur, as an overtime ban prevented his driver from taking him and the Mayoress to any functions during the evenings or weekends.
There appeared to be no end in sight, the country was grinding to a halt – and anti-strike protests began to be staged.
Anti-strikers held counter demonstrations across Lancashire.
After weeks of negotiation, a proposal was put to the TUC general council and agreed on February 14, bringing the Winter of Discontent to an end.
Some strikes did not end immediately, due to the lack of control many unions had over their members at that time – but by the end of February the vast majority had returned to work.